Art Has Its Own Memes

Throughout history, text and repetition play an essential role in art. Whether an artist directly involves text in their work, imposes text onto an image, or repeats the same images and text in different contexts — the essential premises of the “meme” — it’s all a part of the same tradition.

Below, we’ve compiled a list of the meme-iest artists and artworks, from Dada to Damien, for your consumption.

Of course, first up is a painting that itself has spawned countless meme’d iterations, the infamous Magritte …

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René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images

 

Pepe the Frog

Pepe the Frog

 

Milhouse

Milhouse

 

Dat Boi

Dat Boi

 


British contemporary artist David Shrigley’s work often consists of sketched, one-panel comic-esque vignettes. His work can be directly paralleled to several memes:

 

David Shrigley, original drawing for Sketch London

David Shrigley, original drawing for Sketch London

 

Everything is Fine Dog

“Everything is Fine” dog

 

From The Essential David Shrigley

From The Essential David Shrigley

 

Bob Dylan holding signs meme

Bob Dylan holding signs

 

 

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One of David Shrigley’s Venn Diagrams

 

Venn Diagram Meme

Venn Diagram Meme

 

 

 

Some artists, like Jenny Holzer, use text as their primary medium. She repeats the same words over and over, but against a different backdrop each time: Holzer’s Truisms have been projected, engraved, screenprinted, typeset, and more, making her process not dissimilar to that of the meme’s. Her statements span the mundane, the political, the devastating, and the humorous:

 

From Jenny Holzer's Projections

From Jenny Holzer’s Projections

 

From Jenny Holzer's Truisms

From Jenny Holzer’s Truisms

 

From Jenny Holzer's Truisms

From Jenny Holzer’s Truisms 

 

 

 

Pop artist Ed Ruscha cites comics, typography, book design, and advertisements among his inspirations. His works both feature text, and combine text and images:

 

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Ed Ruscha, I Don’t Want No Retro Spective, 1979

 

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Ed Ruscha, Happy Mess, 2006

 

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Ed Ruscha, Uh Oh, 2012

 

 

 

The bulk of conceptual artist Barbara Kruger’s work features black-and-white images overlaid with text in white-on-red Futura Bold Oblique or Helvetica Ultra Condensed:

 

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Barbara Kruger, Untitled, 1983

 

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Barbara Kruger, Don’t be a Jerk, 1996

 

FAJFLAJEA

Richard Prince often turns preexisting text and images, as in his Joke series, into paintings and other media:

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Richard Prince, I Understand Your Husband Drowned, 1989

 

 

 

The Guerrilla Girls, everyone’s favorite cultural watchdogs (watch Guerrillas?), coopt spaces and styles typically reserved for advertising — like billboards — to call out the art world (and beyond). The Guerrilla Girls’ work is inherently meme-like, not just due to their use of text over image, but also because they constantly revisit their old works as a means of emphasizing their critique.

 

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Guerrilla Girls, Poster, 1989

 

 

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Guerrilla Girls, Poster, 2014

 

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Guerrilla Girls, Anniversary Poster, 1985 & 2015

 

 

 

John Baldessari has been known to couple text and image (or even just text and the canvas):

 

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John Baldessari, Pencil Story, 1971-72

 

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John Baldessari, What is Painting, 1968

 

 

 

And London-based muralist Lakwena Maciver, who displays her art publicly on the streets, pairs sweeping maxims with explosively colorful abstract designs:

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Lakwena Maciver, Be Bad Until You’re Good, 2015

 

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Lakwena Maciver, Power, Memories, Stories, 2014

 

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Lawkwena Maciver, The Power of Girl, 2014

 

 

 

BONUS: Of course, no post on the “meme” in art history would be complete without one of the art world’s original trolls, Marcel Duchamp.

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Marcel Duchamp, L.H.O.O.Q., 1919

 

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Marcel Duchamp, Why Not Sneeze Rose Selavy, 1921

 

So, the next time someone tries to send you one of these…

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Just hit ’em with the link to this post, and let ’em know that art history has its OWN memes, thank you very much.